Thursday, April 1, 2010

Just Seen: The Runaways

Mini-run of theatrical experiences lately: caught The Runaways last night and Alice in Wonderland a few days ago. As spectacular and successful as Tim Burton's film is, I preferred the indie, which has yet to crack two million in BO. With it's faults and tiny budget, I think it had a stronger emotional resonance.

The more I think about it, Alice and The Runaways have strong thematic similarities. Both are about girls who decide to reject a doctrinaire, ordinary life, escaping into a phantasmagorical adventure. The protagonists are both on a quest of self-discovery: For Alice, the re-discovery of her "muchness"; for the members of The Runaways, gaining the ability to play on-stage while dodging beer bottles and learning to masturbate in the shower. Both films feature flamboyant male Prime Mover characters: Johnny Depp as the tragic, nonsense-sputtering Mad Hatter, and Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the foul-mouthed, leering music impresario. The final themes split a bit: At the end of Alice in Wonderland (this is a ***spoiler*** only if you have never seen a Disney film before), Alice learns to be a self-actualized, proto-feminist woman of adventure. At the conclusion of The Runaways (again, only a ***spoiler*** if you have never heard of The Runaways or have never seen a Rock Bio before) Joan Jett, like Alice, also becomes self-actualized and kicks off a solo career, while Cherie Currie has a meltdown and returns to obscurity.

I'm not going to pretend, like I suspect many film reviewers have, that I was a Runaways fan from way back and this was the apotheosis. I was fairly indifferent to that band back in the day. I had them pegged as a novelty act, which I realize may have been the point. But The Runaways does get the 70s right. It was a hideous decade, full of awful colors and garish patterns and bad haircuts. Director of Photography BenoƮt Debie shot it in Super16 for a CinemaScope release, so it has a hyper-grainy, washed-out look. The biggest set piece of the film is the most evocative: The girls spend time hanging around Mount Lee, under the completely dilapidated, pre-renovation "HOLLYWOOD" sign.

The plot of The Runaways hits every beat of the way-too-familiar Rock Bio storyline: the Heady, Promising Start, leading to Great Settled Success, the penultimate Internal Strife, and finally the inevitable In-fighting and Dissolution. But the film has a few unusual life lessons buried in it as well:

• It's fun to be at the front of any new trend. We get to see The Runaways invent a rock subgenre all by themselves, and that excitement in conveyed quite well. At one point in the film Joan Jett (Kristin Stewart) stencils her own Sex Pistols t-shirt. It's a nice message to the present: Hot Topic and mass-manufactured fandom can suck it.

• Almost all the conflict in the film comes from lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning): She was a 15-year-old valley girl with a avowed love of the music of David Bowie and Don McLean, who is literally plucked from obscurity by Kim Fowley and Joan Jett to front a hard-rock band. Naturally, she got in way over her head. Writing as a member of a rock band (which does a lot of 70s covers, no less) I can attest that chemistry is very important. If Kim and Joan had waited to find a lead singer who had the burning need to rock as they had, The Runaways would probably still be around, rather than a obscure (actually, considering the film, slightly less than obscure) music-history footnote.

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